Workers in Jane-Finch get legal leg-up
New free initiative launched by law clinic aims to help precarious workers get justice
In more ways than one, setting up shop at Jane-Finch is a homecoming for employment lawyer Phanath Im: it’s a return to her alma matter, Osgoode Hall Law School and legal clinic — but also a way to give back to the community that took her in as a young refugee from Cambodia.
For the first time in decades, residents of the north-Toronto neighbourhood will have access to free legal help when their workplace rights are violated, thanks to a new raft of funding to tackle the rise of precarious employment. And Im will be their new advocate.
“I think it’s particularly important for the dignity of the community to assert their workers rights,” said Im, who will lead the new employment-law service project at Osgoode law school’s legal clinic, CLASP.
Clinic director Marian MacGregor says the organization has long seen a growing need for worker’s rights law for low-wage earners in the neighbourhood. But until recently, Legal Aid’s financial eligibility guidelines excluded many working poor from accessing free legal help. Overall cuts to the service meant almost no clinics could afford to offer employment law services.
Last year, Legal Aid expanded its eligibility criteria and announced new funding for clinics, which have long complained of being starved for cash. As previously reported by the Star, several GTA clinics have used that money to start fledgling worker’s rights projects in recognition of the swelling ranks of precarious workers in the city and poor Ministry of Labour enforcement.
Im is intimately familiar with those issues. After spending 20 years in subsidized housing in the JaneFinch community — including during her student years at Osgoode — Im worked as a prosecutor for the Ministry of Labour before moving into private employment law practice.
“There’s a general fear coming from a disadvantaged neighbourhood that you’re always fighting the big guy who’s going to win,” she said.
“I think the community right now is poor, and I think that’s because there’s a lack of decent jobs for us,” added local resident Vinessa In, who has lived at Jane St. and Finch Ave. W. since she was 12 and is a single working mother.
“I think it’s good to let the community know there’s a service like this because they have rights that they don’t know about when it comes to employment.”
The CLASP initiative, which is already accepting clients and officially launches Thursday, was informed by a month-long consultation with community groups and workers living in the area. Among the major issues that emerged were temp agency work and misclassification of employees as independent contractors, a category that is not protected under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act.
“Employers tend to take more advantage in neighbourhoods like Jane and Finch because they believe people don’t have the resources to assert their rights legally,” Im said.
About half of all work in the GTA and Hamilton is now short-term, contract, temporary or otherwise precarious according to a study by United Way and McMaster University. In addition to providing legal help to low-wage workers, the clinic will also lobby to strengthen the province’s outdated employment standards, currently under government review.
“This is an opportunity for law reform. This is an opportunity to raise this with the lawmakers to say, this is an ongoing problem,” said MacGregor.
The Star has extensively profiled gaps in the legislation that leave many low-wage workers vulnerable to abuse, as well as the difficulties employees face in filing complaints at the Ministry of Labour.
Im said she was encouraged that the government is looking at various ways to address those issues for workers and heartened by the appetite for collective action in her community.
“I’d go so far as to say a movement is happening.” If you are a worker in the Jane-Finch area seeking help, call CLASP at 416-7365029.